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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 22, June 1, 2024

The Mighty BJP vs the Lackluster Congress: Observations on Elections in Himachal Pradesh | Rohit Kumar and Kavita Sharma

Saturday 1 June 2024

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Abstract

The bipolar contest (BJP and Congress being the sole contenders in the state) has become sufficiently interesting due to the simultaneous elections for four Lok Sabha (LS) seats and six Assembly Constituency (AC) seats in Himachal Pradesh, in light of the six Congress MLAs who cross-voted for the BJP candidate in the Rajya Sabha polls and subsequently left the party. The primary variables that can affect the parties’ performance in these elections are the BJP’s dominance in the country over the past ten years, the track record of its nationally famous candidates and leaders, and the Congress’ predicament as a result of this political scene. Due to the cross-voting drama in the Rajya Sabha polls and the ensuing claims of defections and lobbying within the party, the Congress appears to have a tough fight against the BJP’s party-organizational strength and synergy of Sangh Parivar’s cohort at the grassroots.

Key Words: BJP, Congress, Lok Sabha elections, Assembly Constituency elections, cross-voting, party-organizational strength, Hindutva.

Introduction

In many states, the early round of elections to eighteenth Lok Sabha of the country has concluded, but in many others, the campaign is still charged.Himachal Pradesh will hold elections for the LS, which will include Shimla, Mandi, Hamirpur, and Kangra, as well as AC by-elections for six seats, including Dharamshala, LahulSpiti, Sujanpur, Barsar, Gagret, and Kutlehar, on June 1st (Bisht 2024). This is a unique combination of elections taking place at the same time, considering that six Congress MLAs- Rajinder Rana, Sudhir Sharma, Inder Dutt Lakhanpal, Devinder Kumar Bhutoo, Ravi Thakur, and Chetanya Sharma- cross-voted in favor of the BJP candidate Harsh Mahajan, in the Rajya Sabha election in February 2024, prior to the LS elections (Vasudeva & Phukan 2024). This paved the way for the re-assertion of internal conflict within the Congress camp, but the state Congress government in Himachal Pradesh is still in place. This is due to the BJP’s recurring strategies over the last ten years to overthrow state governments and form their own and Himachal is only the recent example of the same.

The drama surrounding the six MLAs quitting the Congress and the subsequent attempt to topple the state Congress government in Himachal has also exposed that the BJP is willing to use any means required to form governments. Meanwhile, the Congress camp is still divided and has seen resurgence of old factions in consequence of the similar. The Congress is now concerned over the declaration of simultaneous polls for the LS and six AC seats, while the BJP appears to be benefiting from it.

The BJP’s Plan

The BJP is riding high on the charismatic welfare-populist aura and Hindutva icon image of its leader Narendra Modi in winning national and state elections from last ten years predominantly. The BJP continues to play the dominating Hindutva cards on the ideological front in these elections too which is visible from its campaigns and rallies of constructing Ram temple and pranprathishtha for the same (Methew 2024).

Similar offerings are being made in Himachal Pradesh, where this game of elections is being played under the name and aura of PM Narendra Modi from the BJP side. At the same time, tickets are being given to candidates such as Kangana Ranaut, who is running for the LS seat from Mandi on the similar grounds. Ranaut has gained not only recognition for her skillful acting in films and national awards, but also for her outspoken political remarks in support of the government, its leader, and Hindutva ideology (The Economic Times 2024). She now holds a LS ticket as a result of this.

There are other prominent Himachal Pradesh leaders in the national BJP and in its central government for LS elections in the state at the same time. This is the hometown of J.P. Nadda, the BJP’s national president and Anurag Thakur [1], a central cabinet minister running from the Hamirpur LS constituency, the son of former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal (Dwivedi 2024). This increased people’s faith in the BJP’s ability to win LS seats in Himachal Pradesh considering the image and track record of these leaders nationally and in the state too. Where Anurag Thakur and Kangna Ranaut being strong candidates for the BJP in the state, it’s national dominance and organizational strength is also a dominating factor for wining other two seats of Kangra and Shimla.

However, the BJP has every resource at her disposal to seize power in any manner, it has demonstrated that it will stop at nothing to establish and maintain power, as evidenced by its strategies to overthrow the state government by influencing six MLAs to leave the Congress following their cross-party votes in the Rajya Sabha elections and by providing them with protection and management (Kumar2024). Following their defection, the BJP now has a fair chance to win maximum of these six AC seats due to its dominance and the nationwide election wave [2].

Concurrently, the BJP is benefiting greatly from its electioneering process in the state, which includes the selection of candidates, distribution of tickets, campaigning, and ideological projection of Hindutva but also due to its current party-organizational base and synergy in the sanghparivar’s cohort at the grassroots. Of particular, the construction of the Ram temple, and pranpratishtha and the door-to-door rallies for the same, have garnered its ideological advance and support nationally but specifically in the state too (The Indian Express 2023). All these factors are being used by the BJP, both nationally and in Himachal Pradesh very astutely and tactically.

The Congress Quandary

The Congress is still in its reinvention mode and still believes in the strategies that Rahul Gandhi chose, such as the Bharat Jodo Yatra and Nyay Yatra and the ideology of guaranteeing social justice by promising Congress’ guarantees in form of many economic incentives in last many state assembly elections and now for LS elections (Shrinivas 2024).

Himachal Pradesh, the death of Congress’ staunch leader and six-time chief minister, Virbhadra Singh left the party a divided house. The many groups and lobbies were vying for control of the party and the position of state head. Congress won the state assembly elections in 2022, largely due to the trend of changing governments every five years and overarching issues like the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) and 1,500 monthly benefits for women (Chopra 2022). The division has been revealed by the drama surrounding the future chief minister, which erupted following the assembly elections win of 2022, and the subsequent distribution of cabinet positions (Joy 2022).

The six Congress MLAs voted for BJP nominee Harsh Mahajan, who is a Congress renegade, in the recent Rajya Sabha polls for a single seat. The BJP then assisted these rebels in managing their exit from the party. However, this has led to feelings of sympathy for the Congress government and an understanding of the BJP’s strategies to overthrow the state Congress government.

The timing was perfect for the Congress to capitalize on the drama and win support, but it didn’t work out that way. The leader of the Shimla Congress’ faction, Vikramaditya Singh (the son of Virbhadra Singh, PWD minister, and a contender for the chief minister position after Virbhadra), announced his intention to leave the government, citing a number of reasons, including Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu (Virbhadra Singh’s longtime rival and the party’s Shimla lobby) breaking pledges and the placement of a statue of Virbhadra on the Shimla ridge (Sharma 2024).

These were merely the trivial causes of the long-standing factional conflict and division inside the Congress, which has simply forced the party into a defensive position where it can counter the BJP’s strategy of purchasing, defection, and overthrowing governments. Renowned politicians such as Sudhir Sharma from Dharamshala and Rajinder Rana from Sujanpur in Hamirpur have spearheaded this defection, claiming that the chief minister has not kept his word. Sudhir Sharma said, “We can’t break the public’s trust by being cowards and keeping silent when the high command is blindfolded and the ruling party of the state has become a dictator, surrounded by a crony of friends” (Parashar 2024). However, the real reason for this defection might be that these individuals have not been given the cabinet positions in the newly formed government.

Even though the Congress was able to keep the government in place, its position has been weakened by its factional division and reassertion during the concurrent elections in Himachal Pradesh. The Congress has lagged behind in releasing tickets for numerous seats and is still undecided about its candidate for the Dharamshala AC seat, whereas the BJP has released tickets for the state’s LS and AC elections significantly earlier (Parashar 2024). This is hurting the Congressional campaign’s chances of success.

Due to this political bickering among party factions and lobbyists, the Congress’ electioneering, ticket distribution, campaigning, and ideological projections are all not supported by the correct foundation at the same time. Congress is attempting to implement a two-pronged strategy, which is why Vikramaditya Singh is now running as the candidate from the Mandi LS constituency. Two reasons exist for this: one, he is a formidable contender with a good possibility of taking the seat [3]; and second, it might be a plot to quiet the powerful faction/lobby in the administration.

If he is elected, chief minister Sukhu would have an easy time leading the state Congress government; if he is not elected, Vikramditya Singh’s standing and reputation will suffer. In both cases, the goal is to silence the group or candidate for chief ministerial birth. The division inside the Congress has, overall, diminished its credibility, and at the same time, the state’s electioneering and campaigning have suffered.

Conclusion

In terms of strategy, the BJP has access to all available resources, both legal and extra-illegal by being in the reign, which it has already tested in Himachal Pradesh. In contrast, the Congress can only rely on the sentiment of voters and its ten-year anti-incumbency campaign against the BJP. Considering the tacit animosity of the local BJP leadership in these constituencies, the BJP’s decision to give tickets to Congress rebels in six ACs is also risky but the leaders like Rajinder Rana from Sujanpur and Sudhir Sharma from Dharamshala being big names and prominent in their own, can prove their worth for the BJP.

BJP’s portrayal of Hindutva as the official philosophy of the party and ideology of the government throughout its reign has polarized the public in terms of ideology. It has attempted, but failed, to overthrow the state Congress administration in Himachal Pradesh. Nevertheless, by using these strategies and exposing divisions inside the Congress party, it has undoubtedly won the psychological war before the local elections. It has succeeded in projecting its power, splitting the opposition and putting the state Congress in a defensive, consequent lackluster mode in the state.

References


[1With an outstanding vote share, Anurag Thakur has won the Hamirpur constituency three times in a row. He received 53.47% of the vote in the 2009 LS elections, 53.61% in the 2014 elections, and 68.81% in the 2019 LS elections, sealing his victory in the same seat. In the most recent LS elections, he had a about 28% edge over his nearest rival, although in the 2009 and 2014 elections, the gap between his vote share and that of his close rivals was about 11% (Election Commission of India 2009, 2014, 2019). The data indicates that Aunrag Thakur has a substantial support base in the Hamirpur constituency, which is his stronghold.

[2The party has designated the six breakaway Congress MLAs as BJP candidates for the Assembly seats of Sujanpur, Dharamshala, Barsar, Lahaul-Spiti, Gagret, and Kutlehar, in that order. Each of them won an election as a Congress Member of Legislative from the constituencies they represent in the 2022 Assembly election (Vasudeva 2024). Should they emerge victorious in the next bye-elections on the ticket of the BJP, they would eventually be held responsible for undermining the standing of the Congress party or overthrowing the Congress government.

[3The residents and voters of the Mandi constituency are familiar with Vikramaditya Singh. His family has always held sway over this constituency. Virbhadra Singh, the six time Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, ran for office in the LS from this Parliamentary Constituency in 1971 and 1980 before entering in the state politics.
Furthermore, Pratibha Singh has been leading the Lok Sabha elections from the same constituency since 2004 (Election Commission of India). She also won the seat in the by-elections held in 2013 and 2021 (Election Commission of India)

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